Do you know where your career is going? Perhaps not yet… but I’ll tell you this: Where your career goes has a lot to do with the person sitting next to you.
Maybe not literally at this exact moment, of course. But the people you spend a great deal of time with have a major impact on how far your career goes.
Here’s the deal: Humans are social animals; we tend to adjust our expectations based on the people around us. These people are our “reference group.” An example many of us can relate to: training or studying with a partner who is slightly better than you; a person who inspires you to up your game to their level.
When it comes to your career, what would happen if we applied that same concept? What if we surrounded ourselves with those who challenge us to be better?
We can. And many successful young professionals are already using reference groups – mentors, influencers, and forms of genius – to define themselves, shape their goals, and gauge their progress.
You’re Already Influenced by Reference Groups
Your first reference group was most likely your parents and family. In the case of my niece, I remember her thinking that her father, who creates amazing gadgets, was Superman; she loved riding around with him in his beat up old truck. Fast forward to her teenage years, though, and her father has become a little less super while her success-oriented peer group and instructors have a much bigger influence on how she will grow as a person.
The genius she has surrounded herself has, and will continue to, change.
I’m not saying that hanging out with smarter and richer people will make you smarter or richer. You are not “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”
Putting Reference Groups to Work
What I advocate is to approach your career much like you would prepare for a marathon: Set specific goals for yourself in terms of what incremental success will look like, and then set out to find that training partner – or reference group – that will challenge you to advance those goals.
This approach has become much easier in today’s world; social media now enables us to locate people far or near with the qualities and traits you’ve targeted. You can then make contact by phone, Skype, or Starbucks… or whatever platform works best for asking great questions and building a mutually-beneficial relationship.
But before you rush off to befriend someone, know that each member of your reference group works differently for different areas of your working life. So when choosing what genius to surround yourself with, consider the following:
The Aspirational Reference Group
These are the famous people or higher-ups you admire because they model ideally what you want to be. You can read their biographies, ask questions around the office, or simply ask them if you get the chance, what they did to prepare themselves. They won’t give you a detailed blueprint, but you can gain an idea of their thinking process to help set your own action goals.
You don’t have to mirror them exactly, of course; this is your story, not theirs. But this indirect or direct research will provide ideas to develop your direction. In the process, you can stand out as an admirer following in their footsteps and they may offer encouragement.
Associational Reference Group
Just as the aspirational group models what you hope to become, the associational group is the people who will help you build a foundation right where you are. They may not be at the top of the social or professional heap yet, but are pretty much rocking it where you and they live now… and you want to understand why.
Primary or Secondary Reference Groups
The primary group is like the training or studying partner you work with closely because you have access via an existing relationship. They will likely provide daily motivation and a benchmark, enabling you to gauge where you are in relation to their activities.
Your secondary group is the people you may not have access to but, through observation, serves as a way to compare your own progress. That may be a running partner you admire and watch from a distance or a professional colleague/rival you watch via social media.
Deciding who fits where will help you determine which group will have the most influence on your immediate decision making and who will be a periodic gauge of your progress.
Informational or Cultural Norms Reference Groups
The informational group is just that: people you hang around just for information. For example, I belong to an analytics group. And while I may not crunch numbers like them, understanding the concepts provides invaluable information on trends.
On the other hand, the cultural norms group provides ideas on acceptable behavior for different work groups or social gatherings. They’re like scouts who relate valuable information about what’s ahead or acceptable for different environments.
Simply put: the informational and cultural norms groups will contribute directly to your professional growth, but as reporters of current events versus direct influencers. And because they greatly reduce learning curves and make the path you’re on much smoother, they are invaluable assets.
Now that you have an idea of how the various reference groups can impact your career, look around you. How many points of genius do you have in each group now? Are those you are using to gauge your progress absolutely worthy of emulation? Where could you, and your career, benefit from expanding the different groups?
Surrounding yourself with genius doesn’t just happen. It takes work, real work.
And it is so worth it.
About the Author: Cherrie McKenzie is a former stockbroker and therapist who explores the psychological side of business on a blog and podcast at CoActiveDreams.com. She has National Board certification in Clinical Hypnosis, coaches related to visualization for peak performance. She conducts workshops and produces multi-media coaching sessions to provide commonsense techniques for better results in every day life.